I write this blog post… review… trip report… whatever you want to call it, with the complete opposite of rose-tinted glasses on. The reason for this however is not that my train was delayed, or cancelled, or re-routed, but that it was in fact all 3 of those things. Accordingly, rather than writing this from my hotel room after arriving, or from home once the return leg of the trip concludes, I am instead writing it from Tring station, just outside of London, as I wait to hear just how delayed we’re going to be. I’ll try not to be too bitter during this post… but I make no promises.
First things first; I love Virgin Trains (the West Coast service anyway). The prices aren’t bad, the services are regular, and they connect my home city of Liverpool directly with London in around 2 hours, which is definitely not to be sniffed at. The fact that I can get to the capital in 2 hours, often for as little as £35 (courtesy of my railcard) is remarkable, and something I take advantage of as often as I can.
In this particular case though, I’m sitting here in first class, thanks to a particularly great deal, and the fact that the included meal makes the increased fare a cheaper option than picking up some food before or after the journey. Now, sadly I can’t jump straight onto the Virgin train, and instead have to connect using Merseyrail, but there are definitely worse services in the world. Running every 15 minutes, with plenty of space (outside of rush hour) and reasonably clean, Merseyrail do a fantastic job of meeting, but not exceeding, your expectations. I like to think of them as the Premier Inn of train services; they do exactly what you need, but nothing more than that.
Now normally, it’d be Merseyrail to Liverpool, a short walk over to Liverpool Lime Street, a coffee in the first class lounge and then onto the train. But as luck would have it, I just happen to be travelling during one of Lime Street’s many closures this year as they improve the station. It’s a shame, as I always love an opportunity to walk through Liverpool, and to pop into the great first class lounge at Lime Street, but on the plus side, at least at South Parkway I’m able to connect straight onto the Virgin Train, which means saving a little bit of time walking (though I do mean a little bit).
So 45 minutes later, I arrive into Liverpool South Parkway, Liverpool’s secondary train hub and the connection for John Lennon airport (a connection in dire need of improvement from the current (iffy) bus connection). Much to my surprise, there’s a small first class lounge pop-up type stall, with a few couches dotted around (one of which is occupied by the resident cat – much to my surprise). So I grab a coffee and some biscuits from the lovely ladies manning the desk, and off to the train I go.
Looking on the board for the train I have made sure to arrive early for, I’m very disappointed to see the word “CANCELLED” emblazoned across multiple lines on the screen. Removing my headphones, suddenly I realise that the crowds of people are all doing the same thing; complaining. In amongst the masses are a duo of terrified looking staff, trying desperately to advise people of what to do, and explaining that a track-side fire down the line has caused the issues, not a mistake on the company’s part. “Fair enough” I think, these things happen, and so I heed the advice of a staff member and board a train bound for Manchester, where I can travel on a different line to London, unaffected by the issues.
So onto a painfully old local train I go – which takes 50+ minutes to do a journey you can drive in 30 – where I discover just how good Merseyrail are, despite the age of their trains. This thing is hot, stuffy, cramped, slow and just about everything else bad you can expect from a train.
As we pull into Manchester Piccadilly, the inevitable happens. Suddenly everyone leaps out of their chairs and high-tails it for the door, desperate to catch the first available train to London Euston. Keen to get an advantage, I quickly check Google Maps to get the platform number, and then dart out after them – overtaking them as they get to the departures board and scan for the right platform – making it to my train a few seconds before it departs (and well before the rest of the passengers on my previous train).
Finally, more than 2 hours after I set off, I make it to a Virgin train.
Now first class on a VIrgin train isn’t exactly a Singapore Airlines suite, but it is definitely better than economy. The seats are bigger and more comfortable, there’s more space for everyone, more table room to sprawl out on, and a lounge at both ends of the journey, which always makes things that little bit better. It’s one of those services where there isn’t really a bad seat, but despite that I do have my favourite: the one seat in the whole of first class which doesn’t face another person; J14.
That said, after taking my seat, I soon realise there is next to nobody on the train, and that almost all of the seats are marked “available”, so I move over to an empty set of single chairs facing each other (giving myself slightly more legroom), and begin unpacking. This is a tactic I often use on Virgin; book the single seat for privacy in case the train is full, and then move to an empty set of double or quadruple seats of it’s empty, ensuring a bit of privacy either way. I’m not antisocial, I’m not antisocial, I’m not antisocial…
As mentioned earlier, one of the only reasons I ever actually travel on first class – for those who don’t know me, I am an incredibly frugal person, who rarely splashes out on… anything – is because of the food service. It’s aggressively average in quality, but it’s passable, and fills the space that would otherwise require a potentially expensive meal at either end of the journey, thus making the price increase (£5-10 each way with a railcard) negligible. Sadly though, despite booking onto a lunch-time service for the express reason of having… lunch, I’m told they’re low on food, and am offered only some olives, or a tuna salad, which is pretty dire.
Luckily, they are more than stocked for snacks. So a bag of crisps, a pretty naff cookie, and some chocolates later, I’m at least no longer hungry, if a little disappointed. But of course, you can only be so disappointed after eating some of those chocolates… I don’t know what Lily O’briens put in their “Uglies” chocolates, but by god they’re delicious. It’s no wonder the lounges don’t normally hand them out freely, I’d clear them out in seconds.
One other luxury of first class is the WiFi. Wait did I say luxury? No that’s definitely not the right word. Although better than using your phone’s mobile connection (which will always be iffy on a fast-moving train due to it bouncing between cell-towers), the WiFi really is pretty poor. If you want to do anything beyond sending text-only messages or some very light browsing, you’re out of luck. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s a good job it’s complementary, if I was paying for it, I’d be livid.
From this point though, I settle in. I have plenty of room, I’ve thought ahead and pre-downloaded things to do on my laptop to fill the time (I was familiar with Virgin WiFi before the trip…), and I’ve thrown on my noise cancelling headphones to immerse myself in the sweet sound of silence. But of course, there is one problem with that; announcements.
One of my little but nevertheless noteworthy gripes on almost every public transport service (buses, trains, planes etc.) is that you can almost never hear the announcements they make, and I don’t just mean when you’re wearing headphones. After catching tiny bits from various announcements, I eventually manage to ascertain that there’s yet another delay, this time caused by someone sadly committing suicide using an earlier train.
“We don’t have much information at the moment, but from experience” – god it’s sad to think that a driver is “experienced” with this sort of thing – “it normally takes around 90 minutes to get through, we’ll keep you updated”.
Suddenly pandemonium sets in. The camel’s back breaking straw has arrived, and it’s in the form of this final additional delay, barely 20 minutes away from our destination. Passengers start demanding to be let off – we’re stopped in a station – so they can get taxis or board trains which go via a different route, but are told that due to the gap between the train and platform – this particular train wouldn’t normally stop at this particular station – they’re not allowed to disembark. Truth be told, I looked, and the gap was so small I couldn’t even see it from the window, but I completely understand that they have strict policies about these sort of things, and frankly, I’m glad they do.
Once again the Virgin staff step up, taking all the flack for something that isn’t their fault, taking every jab in their stride and trying desperately to calm any irate customers. Some passengers pace up and down the carriage loudly grumbling about poor service, others manage to find humour in the situation, and instead ask the staff if they’re stocked with enough alcohol to last into the night – to which they reply that they’re actually running low… oops.
I meanwhile sit happily in my seat. I’ve found that being delayed when you’re in no rush to be anywhere can be surprisingly enjoyable, so long as you’re in a comfortable seat, oh and have a decent supply of free food and drink. Strangely enough, the woman across the aisle from me who was apparently now going to miss her international flight out of Heathrow had a very different attitude.
Thankfully it was much less than 90 minutes before we got going again, and whilst we were told we’d be passing through the affected area slowly, we seemed to hurtle into Euston at the normal speed, bringing this chaotic, cancellation, diversion and delay filled trip to a close, a mere 2 hours later than my scheduled time of arrival (but 1 hour faster than if I’d waited for my original train to get going again).
Of course, Virgin do offer repayment for delays on their line, and that’s certainly something I’ll be pursuing (some customers even receive payments automatically, but sadly as my tickets involved two separate train companies, that’s not available to me). But in a cruel twist of fate, while filing my form for the repayment service during my return leg, lo-and-behold, a train breaks down at Liverpool South Parkway, and I end up having to wait for a bus to take me to Liverpool Lime Street (where, ironically, trains aren’t even running from), before walking to Liverpool Central, and then getting the train from there. Sometimes it’s hard to believe these trips aren’t cursed.